“You look so good!” Who wouldn’t want to hear those words? There are times when complimenting a cancer patient doesn’t make them feel good. Disclaimer: Don’t feel one bit bad if you have ever done this. Read to the end to find out why.
Cancer is an illness associated with appearance changes. So, it often surprises people when a friend who’s undergoing cancer treatment doesn’t look like death warmed over. After all, look at the long list of changes that cancer can bring to a patient’s appearance:
- Hair loss (including eyebrows, lashes and body hair)
- Weight loss
- Weight gain from steroids
- Changes in skin color and texture
- Changes in the finger and toenails
- Changes in eyes
- Mouth Sores
- Bruising due to low platelets
- Changes due to surgery
- Fatigue that will make a patient visibly tired
When complimenting a cancer patient…
Know that your friend may wonder if you realize just how bad they actually feel.
It’s even more difficult to look like “your old self” when you’ve been dealing with pain and nausea.
Sometimes, “You look so good,” doesn’t sound like thoughtful encouragement to a cancer patient. There are several reasons for this.
Susan* often gets anxious when preparing to go out in public. Her friends often compliment her beauty, trying to encourage her. And, she is beautiful. Susan often wonders if her friends understand how serious her illness is. She wants to feel, “normal,” and does all she can to look their best when she leaves the house or has a visitor. Yet, she still wants to feel like people know what she’s going through.
When people see a cancer patient, it’s usually on their very best days.
Whenever Ron* goes to church he makes sure to have rested the day before. He fights the pain he experiences every day, just getting out of bed. He chooses his most flattering suit and applies some makeup to cover the redness the treatment has caused his complexion. Then, he gives social interaction every bit of energy he’s got, in an effort to be a “regular” person.
After all of that, he goes home and spends the next 2 days trying to recover. There, he can recuperate for the next outing. Most people will never know what it took for Ron just to get out of bed and face the world. When he’s given a well-intended compliment, he often thinks “If only you knew.”
Metastatic/stage IV cancer patients (and their loved ones)
Often patients who have life-threatening cancer wonder if their friends don’t understand how life-threatening their illness is. Although the patient may look great on the outside, they know that in fact, they’re dying on the inside.
When my husband was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, he never even had a cough to indicate there might be a problem. Looks can be very deceiving when it comes to cancer.
“What are you really saying?”
Andrea* feels nauseated much of the time and is so aware of the physical changes in her body. It’s hard for her to believe that anyone actually thinks she looks healthy, which is really how she wants to look–and feel. When she’s told she looks good, Andrea often wonders, “Do I really, or do I just look good—for a cancer patient?”
Often people who can pull off looking well, despite their illness, are mistaken for being cured, or no longer on treatment. Part of the phenomena is advancements in treatment. Targeted, or precision therapy and immunotherapy usually spare the patient’s hair, the once, tell-tale sign that someone is a cancer patient. There are also more medications to help patients try to deal with the side effects of their treatment.
How to Handle Complimenting a Cancer Patient
So, how should you handle complimenting a cancer patient when there are so many different opinions on this? Many people with cancer don’t feel sensitive about compliments and welcome them wholeheartedly. However, many do, and they aren’t likely to tell you. So, the best way to approach this is to not comment on their appearance. Instead, ask your friend, “How are you feeling?” Then, LISTEN. This allows them to tell you what’s really happening with them rather than getting labeled based on their appearance. It also lets them feel heard by someone who cares enough to ask.
And if you slip up, out of habit, it’s okay. Anything rooted in well-meaning kindness is a good thing.
So, back to that disclaimer.
What if you’ve ever told a friend who has cancer that they look good in the past? Don’t feel bad about complimenting a cancer patient. You can’t go back and change the past. You meant well, right? And chances are, they appreciated your kind words.
*Note: Names have been changed to protect privacy.
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In 2012 doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan, with stage IV lung cancer. Since then, our family has been learning what it means to face cancer. I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace. My books are available at Amazon.com:
I also blog at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker